By Ken Alm
Solar photovoltaics (PV) are the fastest-growing energy source in the world due to the decreasing cost per kilowatt-hour — 60 percent to date since 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
In November Fauquier County staff briefed the Planning Commission on a proposed draft text amendment for a Utility Scale Solar Ordinance. The proposed text amendment develops standards and definitions for Solar Facilities and creates a new use category and special standards for Utility Scale Solar projects. (Utility Scale Solar projects are currently permitted in Fauquier County through the Special Exception process as Electrical Generating Plants and Facilities, but the current ordinance lacks specific requirements aligned with Utility Scale Solar.) The draft ordinance for Utility Scale Solar can be viewed on the county web site.
UTILITY SCALE SOLAR
As with any land-use application, there are numerous potential impacts that need to be evaluated with solar facility uses. All solar facilities are not created equal, and land-use regulations should reflect those differences in scale and impact accordingly.
Utility-scale solar energy facilities involve large tracts of land totally hundreds, if not thousands, of acres (The current county proposal would limit Utility Solar to 1500 acres). On these large tracts, the solar panels often cover more than half of the land area. The solar facility use is often pitched as “temporary” by developers, but it has a significant duration — typically projected by applicants as up to 40 years.
Establishing such a solar facility use may take an existing agricultural or forestry operation out of production and resuming such operations in the future will be a challenge. Utility-scale solar can take up valuable future residential, commercial, or industrial growth land when located near towns or other identified growth areas. If a solar facility is close to a major road or cultural asset, it could affect the attractiveness of the area. Because of its size, a utility-scale solar facility can change the character of these areas and their suitability for future development.
While solar energy is a renewable, green resource, its generation is not without environmental impacts. Though utility-scale solar facilities do not generate the air or water pollution typical of other large-scale fossil-fuel power production facilities, impacts on wildlife habitat, wildlife corridors and stormwater management may be significant due to the large scale of these uses and the resulting extent of land disturbance. The location of sites, the arrangement of panels within the site, and the ongoing management of the site are important in the mitigation of such impacts.
In short, utility-scale solar facility proposals must be carefully evaluated regarding the size and scale of the use; the conversion of agricultural, forestry, or residential land to an industrial-scale use and the potential environmental, social and economic impacts on nearby properties and the area in general.